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Leadership Habit Jailbreak: Overcoming 5 Common Objections

Most leaders want to become better leaders. But it’s normal to have objections and doubts about investing in developing better leadership habits. When I talk with executives, I hear about how they are grappling with new workforce challenges, strategic concerns, and increasing demands for innovation. Observing these leaders in action, they often rush from meeting to meeting, fight one fire after another and respond to endless emails. The speed of the typical workday is a blur of activity. It's easy to get stuck in a pattern of doing the same things and hoping for better results. When you feel captive to a habit, it’s time to reevaluate. Here are five common objections to developing better habits and what leaders should keep in mind.

Why striving for better habits matters

Leaders must continually transform, adapt, and innovate or fall behind. Research constantly reminds us that the best and most creative leaders populate the most successful organizations. Leaders with closed minds and organizations slow to adapt to new ideas quickly fall behind and become obsolete in a fast-paced digital workplace. All leaders need to continually develop and evolve at a pace consistent with the change in our exacting world.

Business leaders naturally desire to achieve both success and significance in life and at work. However, privately, they question if it is possible given the expectations from their board members, shareholders, and key stakeholders. In today's business environment, success and significance appear to be competing priorities and opposite ends on a continuum. Striving for better habits is a competitive advantage available to any manager or executive looking for a powerful point of differentiation.

In the review and analysis of four separate studies in different industries, it was discovered that leadership effectiveness could account for up to as much as 45% of an organization's performance. According to Jim Collins in the book Good to Great, a review of 1,435 companies studied over more than forty years revealed that leadership effectiveness accounted for up to 6.9 times greater stock returns than market averages.

Effective leadership makes a crucial difference in the personal and professional results you achieve and the life you live.

Objection 1: I do not have the time to change my habits.

One of the most common legitimate objections I hear is that “I don’t have time for this.” It takes time, practice, and consistency to create good habits and break bad habits.

A common myth is that it takes 21 days to break a habit. The number of times you have to perform a healthy habit before it becomes a habit can vary substantially by the person and the situation. One study concluded it typically ranges from 18-254 days of consistency. The key is repetition, and eventually, it will become a habit.

We all get the same amount of time in a day. As leaders, finding time to invest in personal development is challenging and often comes with feelings of guilt from the tradeoffs you have to make. However, how you choose to spend your time is visible to others and sends a message to the rest of your company.

When you invest time developing yourself, you are reinforcing a learning culture where individual development is valued. Also, it is important to remember that your bad habits are costing you in ways that impact your success and significance.

“The chains of habit are too weak to be felt until they are too strong to be broken.” – Samuel Johnson

Objection 2: I have real work to get done.

Similar to the objection of not having enough time but with the twist that an either-or decision must be made. For example, “I only have so many hours in the day, and I can either get the work done that our customers need or spend time developing myself.” This argument takes a nearsighted view of value.

It minimizes the costs of bad habits on the leader, team, and business. It is similar to the belief that taking the time to sharpen a saw is too costly when compared to the value of continuing to cut wood with a dull saw. Creating new healthy habits increases your capacity and effectiveness with long-term returns on the initial investment of time.

"If you believe that training is expensive, it is because you do not know what ignorance costs." Leboeuf

Objection 3: These so-called bad habits were good habits in the past. These good habits will soon become bad habits as well.

A topic like leadership means different things to different people. There are competing points of view on what makes for good leadership that creates confusion. Also, there are more than a few ideas in leadership books based on smoke and mirrors to sell ideas rather than research.

The same leadership approach can have different results in different situations and with other people. For example, suppose I am about to make a life-threatening mistake. In that case, I appreciate direct and forceful communication to help me stop. However, when the stakes are not that high, I interpret that same behavior as obnoxious.

Confusion typically comes before clarity. Rarely in business and in life do you have all the information you need before making a decision. If you are feeling confused, turn to peer-reviewed journal articles, and talk to others to gain a deeper understanding of effective leadership based on proven practices.

Objection 4: I have tried to break habits in the past and failed.

Most of us have experienced trying to break a bad habit before, only to keep doing what we don’t want to do. Although not the most common objection I hear, this is a common experience.

When you view the process of breaking habits with a pass or fail mental model, it sets you up for frustration. Breaking strong bad habits is a learning process that needs to be viewed as the only failure is giving up.

If you are struggling with this objection, spend some time clarifying why you are trying to break this habit in the first place. Ask yourself the following two powerful questions:

  1. What do I want to be remembered for in life and at work? This question requires considering why and what outcome you want from your personal and professional investment of time and energy. To answer this question, you have to factor in the impact you will have on others, what you stand for, and how you want to show up daily.

  2. What does personal and professional success look like this year and over the next five years? When thinking about the answer to this question, consider the following: material, emotional, intellectual, spiritual, physical, commercial, organizational, environmental, time, and team.

"Failure isn't fatal, but failure to change might be" - John Wooden

Objection 5: My situation is different, and this leadership practice won't work in my situation.

It is essential to know your habits and routines. However, leadership is not something that you are born with, and we are much more alike than at first we may appear. I say that because, in my experience, I find leaders from all walks of life, in all sizes of companies, across diverse industries, that believe they are the only ones struggling with a bad habit.

Negative self-talk about a good leadership practice failing before you even give it a try can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you find yourself a skeptic and unwilling to get started, consider expanding your network and talking with others that share your situation. Find someone that has successfully tried or is using this practice. Also, spend time visioning what implementing a good leadership habit would look like. See this practice as a positive step in your leadership journey.

What is the real objection for you to start creating good leadership habits?


Collins, J. (2001). Good to great: Why some companies make the leap--and others don't. HarperBusiness.

Lally, P., van Jaarsveld, Cornelia H., Potts, H., & Wardle, J. (2010). How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world. European Journal of Social Psychology, 40(6), 998-1009.

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About Dr. Jeff Doolittle

He is the founder of Organizational Talent Consulting in Grand Rapids, MI, and Program Director of online graduate and continuing business education at Olivet Nazarene University in Bourbonnais, IL. Executive leaders who work with Jeff describe him as thoughtful, decisive, intelligent, and collaborative. Jeff is a business executive with over twenty years of talent development and organizational strategy experience working with C-suite leaders in Fortune 100, Forbes top 25 private, for-profit, non-profit, and global companies in many industries.

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